This report appears in our Fall 2020 Housing Issue. Subscribe now to get a copy in your mailbox.
THE NEW VOTER REGISTRATIONS began arriving at the Sullivan County Board of Elections office a month before the March 2014 municipal election. Ann Prusinski and Rodney Gaebel, the respective Democratic and Republican county commissioners, sometimes received up to 50 at a time, all of them with addresses in Bloomingburg, one of the smallest municipalities in New York state. This was odd. The last time Bloomingburg held an election, only 24 people voted.
Now it appeared the tiny village had acquired almost 150 new voters, practically overnight. The forms were hand-delivered by two men named Frank Taylor and Aryeh Lightstone—whom the commissioners didn’t recognize—and appeared to be written in the same handwriting, as if a third party had filled them out. It was all “very unusual,” Prusinski said.
Almost all the new registrants had Jewish names. That could be explained: Hasidic families had been moving to the region for years. But when John Kahrs, a resident of a hamlet four miles northeast of Bloomingburg, sent cell-phone footage to the Board of Elections showing that the addresses of some newly registered voters were still occupied by their previous tenants, the commissioners became concerned.
Prusinski and Gaebel drove to Bloomingburg and went on a walk through the village. Prusinski thought of it as a close-knit community; people tended to live there for decades. But what the commissioners saw was a ghost town. There were no cars in the driveways. No one outside.
In the following days, Prusinski became obsessed. She made detours to Bloomingburg before work, after work, in the evenings, and on weekends, driving 30 minutes out of her way from her home in Mountaindale to her office in Monticello. Considering the sheer number of new registrations, she expected to see a bustling little village, to smell the aroma of cooking or to see kids playing in the streets. Any sign of life would do.
But there was none of that.
And yet each morning at about 5 am, the lights in the houses along Main Street switched on. Inside, unworn clothing hung in the closets. Toothbrushes and toothpaste sat untouched in the bathrooms. There were soap and towels and shampoo that no one cleaned themselves with. There were snacks in the kitchens that no one ate and mattresses in the bedrooms that no one slept on. Every two days, people who did not live in the homes picked up the mail. Each evening, the lights switched off.
As evidence of wrongdoing mounted, the commissioners realized they had an unprecedented situation on their hands. “There are ways to game the system perhaps,” said Prusinski. “But outright voter fraud is exceptionally rare.” As it turned out, here in the little village of Bloomingburg, Prusinski and Gaebel had stumbled upon what would become the largest case of federal voter fraud in modern American history.
HOLLY ROCHE moved to Bloomingburg in 2006. She and her husband, Randy, had fallen in love with a six-acre plot of land on a tiny country road with views of the Shawangunk Kill. They contracted with a local builder named Duane Roe to build Roche’s dream house, a modern farmhouse with a swimmable creek in back. Roche was raised in the nearby town of Monticello, but spent much of her adulthood in New York City and Washington, DC. Now she wanted to raise her daughter in the tranquil atmosphere of the countryside.
Even locals admit that Bloomingburg was always sort of a run-down place, but run-down in an intimate, homespun kind of way. The village had just one of everything: one stoplight, one gas station, one senior home, one main road. Main Street ran one mile through the village, from just past the Quickway Diner off Route 17 to the firehouse at the top of the sloping hill. The mayor, one of only 400 residents, owned the hardware store and a small trailer park. There was a dive bar that served pizza, where the owner paid rent only sporadically. Village politics didn’t interest many residents then. Board meetings proceeded in a fluorescent-lit room in Village Hall, without much regard. “Bloomingburg is rural,” Roche said. “That’s why people move here.”
But Shalom Lamm, a modern Orthodox developer who arrived in town around the same time as Roche, was immune to Bloomingburg’s charms. To hear him tell it, the housing stock was in “terrible disrepair” and crime was rampant. “Just a litany of beatings and drug raids,” he said in a deposition almost ten years later. According to Lamm, the owner of one of the houses he tried to buy was shot in a bar brawl. “A horrible place,” he said.
Lamm’s interest in Bloomingburg was speculative. He once boasted to a local reporter that his talent was for scrutinizing the “tectonic plates of demography” and predicting future commercial and territorial needs. If he couldn’t precisely shape events to his liking, he could at least follow them where they were headed. He had taken a map of New York state and used a string to measure out 80 miles from his home on Long Island. He landed on water—you can’t build on water—and on Westchester County, which was too developed already. But nearby was Sullivan County. Lamm, who’s 61, fondly remembered visiting the area as a child, when it was a popular Jewish vacation destination. With the advent of cheap air travel in the 1970s, most of the hotels, resorts, and bungalows in what was known as the Borscht Belt were abandoned, their sundecks overtaken by moss, their bandstands covered in dust. Despite efforts over the years to revive the region, it had remained economically hollow. But Lamm had a vision. With the right combination of financing, finesse, and favorable political winds, Bloomingburg might yet bloom.
While their house was under construction, Holly, Randy, and their five-year-old daughter took up residence in a farmhouse on a disused bit of land recently acquired by Roe, just south of Main Street on Winterton Road. Cattle grazed outside their window. They could hear the birds.
Roe had served as supervisor for Mamakating—a township that includes Bloomingburg and a few other villages—and had built hundreds of homes in Sullivan County. A baby-faced Republican with a pugilistic streak, he often rolled through Bloomingburg’s one stoplight. He bragged to Roche about his plans for the land where she was staying: a 125-unit gated community with a nine-hole golf course and a public swimming pool, accessible to village residents. “A mini Myrtle Beach,” he called it.
Though Roe’s project sounded luxurious, Roche had mixed feelings. On the one hand, she liked driving down a road with nothing but farmland. On the other, maybe Bloomingburg would become “a cute village with coffee shops.”
At the time, Roe didn’t mention Lamm’s involvement in the project.
“You know the story where in order for a vampire to come into your house, somebody has to invite them in?” Roche said. “That was Duane: ‘Come on in.’”
IN 2014, Ami—an Orthodox magazine that has been following the Haredi housing crisis for nearly a decade—published a letter by a young Hasidic mother pregnant with her fifth child. The woman (who chose to remain anonymous; Haredim are typically loath to “air dirty laundry,” even in community outlets) described her three-room apartment in Brooklyn as a suffocatingly small space from which there was no escape. “All I see in front of me are walls closing in on me,” she wrote. “Four of my children sleep in the dining room-cum-foyer, entrance, playroom, dinette and laundry room . . . I’ve often run into the bathroom, just to breathe my own air.” Though she and her husband work full time, larger apartments in the neighborhood were too expensive for them and those they might be able to afford were snatched up as soon as they were listed. “I walk on the street, and I pray. ‘Please Hashem, open up a space for me,’” she wrote. “But all I can see are tall, brick buildings framing the sky.”
Ami’s editors wrote that the letter “typified the terrible situation” that many Orthodox, and especially Haredi, Jews are facing. Brooklyn has become less affordable and more cramped for everyone; median home values nearly doubled in the past decade, and rents continue to increase steadily every year. But the housing crisis has been especially burdensome for the Orthodox. Haredim tend to marry young and start large families. Like the mother of four in Brooklyn, many young Haredi couples find themselves living in the same “cramped quarters they moved into as newlyweds, despite the addition of many children,” Ami reported. Five children sleeping in a single makeshift bedroom is not uncommon. Borough Park, home to a large concentration of Hasidim from various sects, had the highest percentage of severely rent-burdened households in New York City and the third-highest rate of “severe crowding,” according to a 2018 NYU Furman Center report. Williamsburg, where the Satmar Hasidim are concentrated, has seen median rents more than double since 2000.
For many Americans, when a neighborhood becomes unaffordable, the solution is to move. But Haredi communities are tight-knit, organized around central hubs where shuls and other essential Jewish amenities can be accessed within walking distance on Shabbat, when driving is forbidden. This arrangement often requires special zoning (dense housing in close proximity to commercial centers and houses of worship) that must be negotiated before the community can expand. “Orthodox families can’t move somewhere in a vacuum,” said Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, director of New York government relations at Agudath Israel, an Orthodox advocacy organization. “There needs to be infrastructure.”
When Haredi families do move, then, they tend to move together. In 1974, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the charismatic founder of the Satmar dynasty, sent a handful of his followers to settle a new colony in the town of Monroe, 30 minutes south of Bloomingburg, in Orange County. Williamsburg, where Teitelbaum had refounded his Hungarian Hasidic sect after World War II, was already becoming crowded, and the rabbi worried that an ever-expanding array of cosmopolitan temptations would lead his fiercely traditional flock astray. The Monroe shtetl, dubbed Kiryas Joel, would serve as a satellite enclave, sheltered from the pressures and seductions of the city.
In the late ’90s, as Williamsburg transformed into an attractive destination for artists and bohemians, the Satmar were faced with a decision: resist the influx of secular neighbors or take advantage of the rising real estate prices the artists brought with them. “The money won out,” said Samuel Heilman, the author of Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America. Today, Hasidic investors own $2.5 billion in Brooklyn real estate, much of it in the hands of Satmar moguls like Yoel Goldman. But gentrification was an uneven process among the Satmar. While landlords and developers in the community reaped its rewards, poorer Satmar families—a large portion of whom rely on food stamps and cash benefits—could no longer afford the apartments their wealthier counterparts were marketing to hipster transplants. Kiryas Joel, where land was still cheap, became more attractive; its population ballooned from 7,000 in 1990 to over 20,000 in 2010.
The upstate enclave became a blueprint. Today, Route 306 through Rockland County, New York, is dotted with dense housing developments and strip malls catering to Hasidic families. The Satmar of Kiryas Joel have expanded into neighboring towns in Orange County and beyond. Two-thirds of Lakewood, New Jersey’s 100,000 residents are Haredim. “For the moment, until Moshiach comes, our communal needs are rapidly outpacing the space we have to grow in,” the editors of Ami wrote in a 2017 series, “The Exodus,” about leaving cities for smaller enclaves. “We’ll all need to come face to face with moving out, sooner or later.”
In some cases, this exodus has received institutional support. In 2003, the Orthodox Union—a primarily modern Orthodox umbrella organization—held its first “emerging communities fair” to showcase 11 fledging enclaves where Jews were beginning to settle. By 2013, the fair featured 41 participant communities: in places like Jacksonville, Florida; Cherry Hill, New Jersey; and South Bend, Indiana. All the while, developers (some Orthodox, some not) have paid close attention, looking to cash in on the crisis. “Many investors are seeking to buy parcels of land (large or small) and constructing as many homes as allowed,” a real estate agent in Lakewood told Ami. If you build it, this thinking goes, they will come.
With expansion has come conflict. Upstate New York locals complain that high-density Haredi housing erodes their small-town way of life, that the newcomers are taking over. They’ve passed restrictive zoning laws to impede new construction and no-knock ordinances to cease the incessant visits from Orthodox realtors seeking to buy them out of their homes. Kiryas Joel—which in 2011 was the poorest place in America, with 70% of its residents living below the poverty line and half relying on state aid—is seen as a blight, a warning of what’s coming for the rest of the region. Clashes between Haredi residents and their neighbors have played out in Ramapo, Woodbury, and Chester, leading one Orange County executive to refer to the widening power struggle as “a political Chernobyl.”
A particularly notorious drama began in 2005, when an Orthodox majority was elected to the East Ramapo school board. Over the next five years, the board systematically drained the district’s resources, eliminating sports and clubs and laying off hundreds of teachers. In New York state, school boards can allocate public funds toward private education for some children with special needs. Hasidim on the East Ramapo school board used this provision as a loophole to redirect a significant portion of the money saved on public education toward their own yeshivas. In some cases, the yeshivas even moved into former public school buildings, which the school board sold to them on the cheap. For Hasidic residents, the calculation was simple: Why should all their property taxes go to funding schools their children don’t use? For the largely immigrant, nonwhite, and working-class public-school population in Ramapo, however, the long-term effects were disastrous. What had been a relatively high-performing district became one of New York’s worst.
In these conflicts, antisemitism—or, at least, xenophobic fears of a foreign-seeming other—is ever present. In Ramapo, an activist parent compared the school board to Pontius Pilate. In response, Daniel Schwartz, the Orthodox board chairman, gave a fiery speech accusing district parents of teaching their children to hate Jews. Though the speech was sensationalistic (Schwartz referenced Auschwitz and Treblinka), it had a kernel of truth: Some public-school parents and students had come to see Hasidim as their enemy. “I had plenty of Jewish friends that I grew up with. But then when you look at the school board, it’s like, what else are you supposed to think?” one former student told New York Magazine. “Because it’s all Hasidic Jews. And it’s them against us.” At the same time, secular residents complain that Orthodox leaders use accusations of antisemitism to deflect attention from their own less-than-neighborly behavior. Bill Herrmann, a building inspector and former Rotary Club president in Sullivan County, put it bluntly: “It’s the label thrown to try to get you to shut up.”
The fact is, whether motivated by bigotry, concern for their children’s education, or a desire to preserve their country lifestyle, many upstate residents simply do not want Haredim in their towns. Last year, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a fair housing suit against the town of Chester and Orange County, whose leaders, the AG said, were engaged in an antisemitic campaign to block a Hasidic development. For the most traditionalist Haredim, these showdowns fuel an existing suspicion of the outside world: an assumption that religious Jews will only ever be tolerated, never accepted, by secular institutions. They expect, and sometimes even court, conflict. “In every respect, they fight back,” said Heilman. In an open society, he added, cultivating hostility toward outsiders also serves as a way to maintain communal insularity: “In general, they’re always looking for proof that the outside world is not to be trusted.”
They often find it. Almost everywhere Haredi pioneers have attempted to put down stakes, existing communities have responded by putting up legal and political barriers. And as the counties closest to New York City fill up, Orthodox leaders and developers have cast their gaze further north, to the foot of the Catskills, looking for tranquil villages where the land is cheap and voters are few—small, tucked-away places where any opposition can be overwhelmed. Places like Bloomingburg.
HAVING FOLLOWED THE DRAMA in neighboring counties—the influx of Haredi residents, the battles over schools and development—Bloomingburg residents were vigilant about preventing the same fate from befalling their town. When Lamm and his business partner Ken Nakdimen arrived in Sullivan County, rumors immediately swirled that they were buying up land for Hasidic Jews. This anxiety became especially pronounced in 2005, when Lamm made his first major purchase in Sullivan County: an old glider airport in Wurtsboro, bought for $4.5 million. In an interview with The Times Herald-Record, the local Sullivan County paper, Lamm playfully mentioned he was wearing “a T-shirt and jeans” to allay readers’ fears that he was Haredi.
Lamm and Nakdimen were an odd couple. Lamm—son of Norman Lamm, a towering figure in the modern Orthodox community and the former president of Yeshiva University—is a people-pleaser with a gap-toothed grin, a soft voice, and a warm, frenetic demeanor. He hosted a meet-and-greet barbecue for residents and charmed locals with stories about how he fell in love with Sullivan County as a boy, piloting his first flight to the Wurtsboro airport at age 14. “He was full of enthusiasm. Always telling you what you wanted to hear,” said Herrmann.
Lamm was generous with his money. He turned a decaying diner into a library with a tea parlor and put on concerts at the airport. Teek Persaud, the owner of the Quickway Diner, said Lamm would come in almost daily to drink coffee and compliment Persaud and his staff on their hard work. “A very nice man, very polite,” said Persaud.
But no one in Bloomingburg seemed to have anything nice to say about Nakdimen. “A creepy little man,” Herrmann called him. More often than not, Nakdimen worked behind the scenes while Lamm worked the room. Aaron Graham, a booking agent who worked on the airport concerts, said Lamm and Nakdimen cheated him out of $7,000 (Graham claims he invoiced them but Nakdimen refused to pay). Bill Liblick, a local writer who also worked on the concert series, was more severe. “Ken is the type of person that would take the blood out of a person,” he said. “I would describe him as human sewage.” Roe, Roche’s builder, seemed to be the only one who preferred Nakdimen’s brusque demeanor to Lamm’s savoir faire. “Ken is a straight shooter,” he said.
For years, the pair of developers were a suspicious but not unwelcome presence in the region. Lamm readily announced his extravagant plans for Sullivan County, telling reporters he was building a row of McMansions on the Shawangunk ridge, a $100 million water park in Monticello, a spa, and a hotel. “After meeting with Lamm and talking with him, I just felt differently about him,” Cindy Romer, a former resident, said. If any of their schemes ever materialized, it might even do some good.
That all changed with Chestnut Ridge.
ROCHE GOT HER FIRST GLIMPSE of the project Roe had told her about on a chilly day in March, 2012. Driving down Winterton Road, she saw the first model home arriving in pieces by truck. “It wasn’t a golf club,” she said. “And it wasn’t high-end.”
She got hold of the environmental impact report for the project by filing a public records request, and spread it out on her kitchen table. “I felt like Sandra Bullock in a bad movie,” she said. The development, now called The Villages of Chestnut Ridge, would consist of 396 multistory townhouses. The report said it would accommodate 812 residents, including 110 school-age children, and 205 cars at peak traffic—numbers that seemed oddly low for almost 400 five-bedroom homes. By Roche’s calculations, Chestnut Ridge would be able to accommodate at least 2,000 residents. And the mention of schoolchildren didn’t align with what Roe had been telling the village board for years: the development was designed for wealthy empty-nesters. “The lie was so grand it wasn’t even funny,” said Roche.
In a preliminary floor plan for the townhouses, she saw the kitchens had two sinks and two stoves—an indication of kosher food preparation, in which meat and dairy must be separated. When Steve Israel, then a reporter for the Times Herald-Record, visited one of the model homes with Lamm, he asked about the two sets of appliances. “Lamm told me, ‘Oh, that’s the latest thing,’” said Israel. “I was like, ‘Yeah right.’” Other residents expressed concern about the quality of the development. “You think you’re getting something from Tiffany’s but it’s really from Walmart,” said Katherine Roemer, a resident and former village trustee, in an interview.
Roche started attending township and village meetings to question the trustees. Soon, Village Hall filled with other angry locals backing her. Who approved this? What happened to the golf course? It came to light that two years prior, Mark Berentsen, Bloomingburg’s mayor, had signed a “Development Agreement” on behalf of the village, approving Chestnut Ridge alongside a new wastewater treatment plant with a water line that conveniently hooked up to Berentsen’s home. (This led Roche to believe Berentsen was partaking in a quid pro quo, but a civil lawsuit filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was later dismissed.)
As opposition to the development grew, people gravitated toward Roche, whose spirited tirades in village meetings inspired others. A small, wiry woman of 60, Roche speaks with care and authority, gesticulating with her thumb and forefinger pressed together. Her distinctive Catskills-by-way-of-Brooklyn accent can be heard over the din of other voices, which tend to hush when she talks. Roche, who is Jewish, was careful to couch her opposition to the development in terms of corruption, not anxiety about Hasidim. “That was not my fight,” she said. “People would come up to me and say, ‘Good job fighting those Hasidics,’ and I’d have to look at them and say, ‘I’m not fighting Hasidics. I’m fighting corruption, criminal activity.’ It was exhausting.”
Yet Roche and others often expressed fear that the personality of the town would change. The villagers wanted small-town life to be sprinkled with friendly waves and communal backyard barbecues. If new neighbors kept to themselves, could that way of life persist? Longtime residents felt that they, and not the newcomers, should be the ones to control the character of their village. “When you have a village like ours, with a little over 400 people, a culture has developed. If the project brings in a homogeneous group that will overnight completely change the culture of this town, isn’t it the responsibility of this body as representatives of the people to do something about this?” asked resident Andrew Rivas at a 2012 village board meeting. Clifford Teich, a village trustee who blamed Roe for misleading him about the intentions of the project, asked John Kelly, the village attorney, if there was any way to ensure no “religious community” would be moving into Chestnut Ridge. “It’s insane that you just asked me that question,” Kelly replied.
That summer, Roche and other locals formed the Rural Community Coalition (RCC). At the first meeting, a hundred people showed up. Persaud, the owner of the Quickway, and Herrmann, the building inspector, took leadership roles. Over the years, the RCC met at the Quickway or Roche’s house. If the weather was nice, they gathered in the Mamakating Town Park. They attended board meetings and filed information requests to dig into Lamm’s background. “It was like the little town that could,” said Herrmann.
One day that August, Roe agreed to meet with the RCC. Roe and Lamm’s relationship had soured by then; they were locked in civil lawsuits against each other. “Here’s the bottom line, keep up your pressure,” Roe told the RCC in a tape recording provided by Roche. Most importantly, he confirmed the development was planned for Hasidim. “Keep hitting that density thing. Don’t get caught up in religion,” he advised, referring to Chestnut Ridge’s high-density townhouses. “It’s no big secret that the Hasidic community [in Brooklyn] was looking for 4,000 units,” he said. “[Lamm] doesn’t have enough units yet, and that’s why you’re getting to him. Keep making noise.”
Some RCC members heeded his advice, but not everyone held to the same standards. One day, Roche saw her neighbor Lesleigh Weinstein, who is also Jewish, protesting in town with a sign that read, “No Shtetl in Bloomingburg.” “That to me is the equivalent of saying, ‘No Jews here,’” said Roche. On Facebook, Weinstein was even more aggressive, referring to Hasidim as “cockroaches” and “cultist[s].” On Friday nights, when Lamm walked to services in a garage near the firehouse, he often passed a group of protestors gathered on Main Street. Lamm later said in a deposition that one of them told his teenage daughter to “eat shit and die.” Roche’s digging led Lamm to threaten her with legal action. “You have no right to slander my organization, myself, or anyone that works for me,” Lamm wrote to her. “You are now put on notice.” Roche ignored the warning. Shortly thereafter, when another townsperson handed her a contract titled “Confidential Retention Agreement,” she turned it over to Israel, the local reporter, for publication in The Record. According to the document, Roe had agreed back in 2006 to be Lamm’s front man, taking “all necessary steps” to obtain land approval for a development of “at least 400 units.” For his services, he would be paid $1.4 million.
In an interview, Roe acknowledged he acted as a beard for the developers, but he insisted it was necessary. “They would’ve been shot down before they got through the front door. And not because of the merits of the project,” he said. “Strictly because of their religion.”
ROE SAID HE SUSPECTED Chestnut Ridge was intended for Hasidim all along. “I was smart enough to know there were people running around in Sullivan and Orange Counties looking for an area to put ultra-Orthodox Jews,” he said. But Lamm insisted that wasn’t the plan until the housing bubble burst in 2008. With the market in free fall and millions of homes foreclosed upon, “Hasidim seemed to be the only group that still had a pressing housing need,” he told Jewish Currents. (Lamm declined to be interviewed over the phone but responded at length to questions by email.) He claimed he and Nakdimen pursued “every other market [they] could think of,” including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The only market that responded positively was the Hasidic market,” wrote Lamm.
On January 2nd, 2013, Lamm gave a clandestine tour of Chestnut Ridge to a special guest: Zalman Teitelbaum, one of the two Satmar Grand Rebbes. He told investors afterward in a “highly confidential” executive summary that the rabbi “seemed very pleased with the homes and the giant and transformative nature of the plans.” Lamm explained in the summary that he and Nakdimen had “worked for 7 years in complete secrecy to achieve a fully approved project.” Chestnut Ridge, he wrote, would be a “transformative development” for a “growing Hassidic community that will ultimately accommodate thousands of families.” He planned to expand the tract from 396 units to as many as 7,000 over the course of 15 years. Lamm wrote that he hoped to be “rewarded for the years of secret toil” with “a very substantial return on investment” of $336.5 million. “Critically,” he continued, “the development is in Bloomingburg, NY, the smallest village in [New York State]. With the initial occupancy of these homes, the owners of Chestnut Ridge will effectively control the local government, its zoning and ordinances.”
Meanwhile, village meetings had become raucous affairs, overflowing with people protesting the development. Residents booed, hissed, and pushed one another. “Quite frankly, they were very uncivil and they were quite nasty,” said Israel. Many villagers demanded to know whether Hasidim would be moving into Chestnut Ridge. After a particularly contentious meeting, Lamm exploded at a reporter: “What if you asked, ‘Are Blacks moving in?’ What kind of question is that? . . . What if I said, ‘Oh, those Italians are moving in. Or those Germans, when they cook their knockwurst it smells so bad.’”
He had a point. Despite Roche’s efforts to control the narrative, the xenophobic dimensions of the conflict could not be contained. Bloomingburg residents, including Roche, often complained that the value of their homes would decline when the Hasidim moved in; white suburbanites had opposed racial integration on precisely the same grounds. As one white neighbor told Life magazine in 1957, Bill Meyers, the first black homeowner in Levittown, PA, was “probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him, I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”
In early November of that year, Herrmann was elected supervisor in Mamakating as a member of the Rural Heritage Party, a third party recently formed by farmers in Sullivan County. He ran on a platform opposing Chestnut Ridge. “We should be the ones saying, ‘This is what we want for our town,’” he told Mamakating News. Three other RCC allies, including Roemer, ran to replace Berentsen and the board of trustees in the March 2014 election. One of them, Jimmy Johnson, wrote on Facebook, “What we have people, is a religious cult taking over a small village. We are out and they are in. So to say we are mad and upset is an understatement.”
In October 2013, Lamm heard that Mayor Berentsen was rattled by the RCC’s offensive, and getting cold feet about running for reelection. There were rumors that his wife Susan, the village clerk, cried constantly and refused to leave the house. Berentsen had been a close ally of Lamm’s for years, backing the development at every turn. If the RCC succeeded in replacing him, Lamm believed, the whole project could be jeopardized. Lamm and Nakdimen met with Berentsen and prodded him to run; they documented the meeting in a follow-up email to an investor, later revealed in a lawsuit. “He has been as clean as a whistle, and our very biggest supporter,” Lamm wrote. “We very much want him to stay in office . . . We GUARANTEED to him that he will win the election if he agrees to run . . . Subject to his wife agreeing—HE HAS AGREED TO SERVE.”
FIXATED ON THE MARCH ELECTION, Lamm set about hiring a team of well-connected political professionals to help Berentsen win. Through Michael Fragin, a political strategist and former aide to Governor George Pataki, he hired Beckerman PR—a multimillion-dollar public relations firm run by Keith Zakheim, a former Paramus Borough Councilman—for $40,000 a month. The November before the election, Lamm invited Zakheim and his team to Bloomingburg for a meeting at his headquarters, a large farmhouse off Route 17K.
Immediately, it was clear this would not be a typical PR job. Adam Dalezman, an account supervisor at Beckerman, took notes as Lamm outlined his plan: If Bloomingburg residents wouldn’t vote for Berentsen, Lamm needed a new electorate. He and Nakdimen were “feverishly” buying up every multifamily home in town. Moshe and Zev Smilowitz, a father-son team of Satmar askanim (local fixers and influence peddlers), would find kollel students from Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg—mostly young men studying Torah and living off a community stipend—to move into them. And the Beckerman team would register them to vote. Lamm estimated they’d need 150 new voters to overwhelm the opposition. To sweeten the deal for the students, Lamm planned to offer two years of free rent and $1,000 for each student willing to move. But they “HAVE to vote,” Dalezman wrote in his notes, which were entered into evidence during a federal lawsuit.
In the weeks that followed, Beckerman’s work ramped up. Frank Taylor, a recent college graduate working at the PR firm, was dispatched to attend RCC meetings and fundraisers, eavesdrop on locals at the Quickway, and grab any RCC paraphernalia lying around. Lamm found a rabbi with a struggling yeshiva in Monsey who committed to register 50 of his students to vote in Bloomingburg in exchange for $500 a head. At Lamm’s instruction, Dalezman picked up a voter roll from the county Board of Elections (BoE) and the team sent blank postcards to everyone on the lists to determine whether voters actually lived at the addresses. (Lamm denied this.) If the postcards were returned to sender, they’d cross them off. One less person to worry about. “That voter roll was our Torah,” said one person involved in the operation, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
Lamm, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly obsessed with the bigotry of his opponents. He asked the Beckerman employees to document every social media post from Bloomingburg residents that might be read as antisemitic. At one point, according to multiple sources, he wanted Beckerman to put up a billboard on the way into town that read, “Welcome to Germany, 1944”; Beckerman’s leadership convinced him this was not a good idea.
In his email to Jewish Currents, however, Lamm struck a different tone. Though he described the Bloomingburg townspeople as “hate-filled,” he equivocated about identifying them as specifically antisemitic. “I get very nervous labeling other people as racist. It’s too simple and often inaccurate.” Though he noted his own distance from the Satmar world, saying that he “deeply respect[ed] certain aspects of this community” but was “squarely opposed to other parts,” he described his work in Bloomingburg as motivated by a “civic duty” to protect the right of all people, including Hasidim, to live wherever they like. In a missive thick with literary and historical allusions—he cited Teddy Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, and the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead—Lamm depicted himself as an all-American businessman and champion of social uplift. “I still approach the world, and my interaction with it, more in the model of Booker T. Washington than WEB Du Bois,” he wrote. “I believe in the power of economic progress to lift all boats, in the infinite worth of all people (as they all are created in the image of God), of being forgiving, never holding a grudge, and seeking consensus.” He denied having proposed the Holocaust-themed billboard (“I am not a fan of Holocaust comparisons in general,” he wrote), but sent Jewish Currents a mockup of a different billboard idea, also never realized: a photograph of 16-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, being heckled by white parents outside Little Rock High School in 1957, with the caption, “Is this how we want our children to remember our behavior in Bloomingburg?”
By the end of the year, Lamm and Nakdimen’s infrastructural projects were being blocked left and right by the village planning board, a body of five appointed by the mayor. Their proposal for a 16-room girls’ school was met with such ire that a board meeting to discuss it was canceled before it began. A shul, presented to the board as a “clubhouse,” was rejected outright. Lamm had already sunk $130 million into Chestnut Ridge. Years of careful work with investors and the Satmar Grand Rebbe were on the line. After a particularly vehement village meeting, during which all three of Lamm’s agenda items were rejected, Dalezman emailed a recap to the team. Nakdimen, he reported, told him that night, “It’s no more mr nice guy [sic] time. We need to win this election now more than ever and replace the entire planning board.”
In early January 2014, Lamm met with an election lawyer named John Ciampoli. Lamm had gotten advice from another lawyer in October that in order to establish residency, a registrant would need to “manifest an intent [to live at the registered address], coupled with physical presence without any aura of a sham.” Ciampoli had a different view. He told Lamm that in scrutinizing residency, courts would look for indicia of residency, like a lease, utility bills, bank accounts, and magazine subscriptions. Continuous physical presence wasn’t necessary, per se. Lamm hired him.
Around the same time, Aryeh Lightstone, another of Lamm’s consultants who is now a senior advisor to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, wrote to the Beckerman team: “Shalom is exploring the option of . . . having renters . . . register their cars, set up bank accounts, utility bills etc. and register as voters” before actually moving to Bloomingburg. “Essentially,” Lightstone wrote, “if you can’t bring mohammad to the mountain bring the mountain to mohammad.”
In the days that followed, Taylor, the most junior associate at Beckerman, was given a new assignment. Instead of staking out community meetings, he was tasked with furnishing empty homes. “All apartments need beds, clothes and food, regardless of occupancy status or construction status,” read a recap of a Beckerman team meeting. Taylor was sent to Walmart to buy towels, sheets, toothbrushes, and lamps. He installed mezuzahs on the doors. Someone subscribed the absentee tenants to Yiddish language newspapers and picked up their mail. When Taylor arrived at the apartments that Lamm owned in town, the floors were often still wet with lacquer. Some were in unlivable states of disrepair.
Lamm eventually owned dozens of properties in the village, including some storefronts. Romer, who had lived in Bloomingburg since the days when you could buy a fountain soda at the bowling alley, sold him her house for $99,500, a little over 30 days before the election. It was never even on the market. “I saw what was going to come,” she said. Herrmann, for his part, tried to alert state politicians, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Representative Chris Gibson, about what he referred to as the “general lawlessness” taking place in his town. Mostly, they ignored him. Gillibrand’s office sent a staff member to Mamakating who dismissed the issue as a “local thing.” Only the FBI responded, saying they’d look into it.
The RCC began a neighborhood watch of the homes Lamm bought after townspeople observed Hasidim hauling mattresses from one house to another. “It was just musical chairs,” said Kahrs, the man who alerted Prusinski and Gaebel to the false registrations. Members of the watch, which numbered about 30 people, took photographs, recorded video, and kept meticulous activity logs: Porch light is on. Shades closed. No vehicles parked. In his email, Lamm accused the watch of going on what he called “mikvah hunts,” “peer[ing] into people’s basements and backyards” looking for pools that might be used as ritual baths; if any were found, the watch reported them to village authorities as evidence of permit violations. “The thought was if they outlawed mikvahs, then Hasidim would not be able to live there,” Lamm wrote.
Knowing that the RCC was scrutinizing them, the Beckerman team brainstormed ways to make the houses look lived-in from the outside. “Holly Roche’s standard of residency seems to be sheets hanging in the windows, so we should do that as well,” wrote Taylor in an email to the team, presumably referring to curtains. “Do we have lamps and timers?” Dalezman asked. “If so, lets [sic] set them up to go on during specific times. If not, let’s get some!!” “Great idea,” Lamm replied.
Lamm’s team seemed to cycle between an awareness that what they were doing was not aboveboard, and an insistence on its legality. On February 13th, 2014, Lamm instructed the team to get social security numbers from all prospective tenants so his assistant could change over their electric bills. Zev Smilowitz responded, “We can not [sic] have one person call in Orange and Rockland with everyone’s personal information it will look funny, my thoughts!!” Dalezman wrote back, “If it’s legal, I don’t care if it seems funny.” When Zakheim expressed trepidation about Dalezman going to the BoE to pick up the latest voter rolls, Fragin, the former Pataki aide, said, “Voter rolls are public info. There is nothing inappropriate or suspicious.”
Meanwhile, things in town were heating up. Lamm—who had begun wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a concealed firearm—had hired Ed Clouse, a local cop, to run security for him, and showed up to meetings with bodyguards. People became paranoid. Cathy Hines, one vocal resident, says she was followed home by a black Suburban with tinted windows. Herrmann says his mailbox was smashed. Roche kept one eye on her rear window as she drove, fearing she’d get shot or driven off the road.
Some townspeople engaged in their own intimidation tactics. Weinstein, who had by this point abandoned the RCC, stood on a corner every weekend with various signs, one of which read, “Shalom. Welcome to Lammville.” The couple who lived next to Chestnut Ridge erected a 20-foot wooden cross on their property, bordering the development, that remains standing to this day. “It looks like something out of 1960s Selma,” said Roche. Lamm told Liblick, the local writer, that it was reminiscent of KKK cross burnings in the South.
On February 18th, Taylor and Lightstone hand-delivered 131 voter registrations to the Sullivan County Board of Elections office. A few days later, Lamm signed hundreds of leases with made-up prices for all those who had registered to vote. The leases were backdated to February 14th, to give the appearance that tenants had lived in Bloomingburg 30 days before the election, as required by law.
IN THE DAYS leading up to the election, four residents—including Kahrs—filed 240 challenges against suspicious new registrations with the Sullivan County BoE. Prusinski and Gaebel became frantic to stop what they suspected was about to take place. They dispatched the local sheriff’s department to inspect the houses and report back. Eric Chaboty, the Sullivan County undersheriff, found living spaces unoccupied, a refrigerator unplugged and pushed away from the wall, and some houses completely empty of furniture.
Prusinski and Gaebel alerted the state BoE office. Prusinski, who spoke for the first time on the record to Jewish Currents, said the BoE was more concerned about her and Gaebel’s investigation than they were about evidence of fraud. “Anna Svizzero [then the director of elections at the State BoE] was screaming at us at the top of her lungs demanding why we were going door-to-door and intimidating voters,” said Prusinski, adding that FBI agents, not her and Gaebel, were the ones going door-to-door. “She made clear she did not need to hear from us, that she knew exactly what was going on and that every one of those voters would vote and that the state would prosecute us for voter intimidation and voter suppression.” (The state BoE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
With the election days away, a lawyer for the RCC convinced a county judge to separate ballots from the challenged voters so that they wouldn’t be immediately counted—but the backlash was swift. Sue Berentsen, the village clerk and Mayor Berentsen’s wife, sent the commissioners a letter demanding the voters be restored to the rolls. “I am sure you share my concern that we will be subject to a Civil Rights lawsuit if these people are not allowed to vote in the upcoming election,” she wrote.
On March 13th, five days before the election, nearly 50 FBI agents raided Lamm’s properties in Bloomingburg. At Lamm’s farmhouse, the agents rifled through dozens of binders the Beckerman team had prepared for each new voter, including a registration form and a copy of their lease. Taylor was dispatched to the house to clean up the mess. The FBI had taken their original documents and returned copies stamped with evidence numbers, leaving the office in complete disarray.
The little village was crawling with feds. “There were FBI agents every place you looked,” said Herrmann.
THE MORNING OF THE ELECTION, Roche staked out a spot a hundred yards from the polling station at Village Hall, which opened for voting at noon. About a dozen RCC supporters were knocking on doors to get out the vote and giving people rides to the polls. The Rural Heritage Party had written up internal “script suggestions,” recommending that canvassers “never refer to a religious sect” and mention instead the “effect of higher school taxes on property values.”
Roche watched as vans and buses dropped off dozens of women in modest dress and head coverings and men in yarmulkes with peyos. Not all of them were Satmar, but she doubted many of them, if any, lived in the village: When you live in one of the smallest villages in the state, you tend to know everyone. “There was a sense of being violated,” she said.
Prusinski and Gaebel acted as election inspectors. Inside Village Hall, two poll watchers privately conversed with voters in Yiddish, which Prusinski considered inappropriate. Voters asked the interpreters what street they lived on, what county they were in, and how to spell Bloomingburg. By the end of the day, over half of the 240 challenged voters had gone to the polls.
The election results remained undetermined until two weeks later, when the Sullivan County Supreme Court convened a tense hearing to decide whether the separated ballots should be counted. None of the Hasidic voters whose registrations were challenged showed up to contest the challenge, which the judge said was “extremely telling.” Ciampoli appeared to represent Lamm, whose registration was also challenged, but said Lamm was out of town. “There is clear indication that this was an attempt to stuff the ballot box,” the judge concluded, and threw out the ballots from the challenged voters.
All three of the RCC-backed Rural Heritage Party candidates won.
THE TOWNSPEOPLE had won the battle but lost the war. In the following months, Hasidim began moving to the village in greater and greater numbers. The influx exacerbated the locals’ paranoia. They registered their grievances to Village Hall in the guise of allegations about building code and capacity violations: an illegal mikvah; a Torah observed in the senior home, suggesting it was being used as a shul. Some of Lamm’s worksites were graffitied with swastikas and phalluses. The building code enforcer, who refused to issue what he considered superfluous stop-work orders on Lamm’s properties, had the windshield of his truck smashed in. “The violence was very real and terribly upsetting, and meant to intimidate me,” Lamm wrote in his email to Jewish Currents. “I was actually terrified.”
The tenor of hostility in the village took a toll on Roche’s family life. She was spending up to 60 hours a week on the RCC and questioning the nature of the work. “You’re not fighting for children’s rights or animal protection,” she said. Once, while driving by Chestnut Ridge with her now teenaged daughter, a Hasidic person crossed the street. “Hit ’em,” said her daughter.
In September 2014, Lamm brought a $25 million lawsuit against the village and township governments for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the Fair Housing Act, the First and Fourteenth Constitutional Amendments, and the New York State Constitution. A number of town politicians, including Herrmann and Johnson, were personally named. The suit—which the town and village eventually settled for $2.9 million—hit particularly hard. Regular “country folk,” as Herrmann fondly described his demographic, were deposed for hours by Lamm’s attack-dog DC lawyer, Steve Engel—now Trump’s assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel. Herrmann’s planning board quit on him. He had an actual coronary. “I was in the hospital twice for high blood pressure,” he said.
But as the antisemitism lawsuit dragged on, Hasidim kept moving to Bloomingburg. Soon, about 40 to 50 Hasidic families had settled in the village. “I was a little nervous before coming here, but since I moved I’ve really been enjoying it,” Mendel Kritzler, who moved to Bloomingburg with his family, told JTA. “[I]t’s the Garden of Eden. It’s quiet. There’s peace of mind. It’s much, much cheaper—half the price of Williamsburg.”
All three village trustees from the Rural Heritage Party soon lost their seats, two to Hasidic candidates and one to Russell Wood, another Lamm ally. “I look forward to working with everyone in the village to make unity,” said Aaron Rabiner, who defeated Roemer, on election night in March 2015. “I know it’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to struggle together . . . I think once [people] get to know me, they’ll have a different look at who we are.”
It had been two years since the FBI raid, and Lamm was still a free man. His allies ran the village. The opposition was exhausted, the state didn’t seem to care, and the county was tired of getting sued. Roche had lost hope that anyone would ever be held accountable.
Then, in December 2016, four indictments came down.
Lamm, Nakdimen, and Zev Smilowitz were charged with conspiracy to corrupt the electoral process. The fourth man charged was Harold Baird, a Lamm ally who ran for trustee in the 2014 election. Geoffrey Berman, then the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, called the crime “the biggest federal voter fraud case in the modern era.” More than four years after the creation of the RCC, its members finally felt vindicated. “Obviously we’re not anti-Semites,” Herrmann told The Herald-Record. “Somebody is guilty of fraud.”
In 2017, Lamm and Nakdimen pled guilty. (Smilowitz held out an additional year.) At sentencing, Lamm’s lawyers depicted the battle over Chestnut Ridge as “a fight against discrimination directed at a minority group,” during which Lamm’s “typically good judgment was eroded” by the “war-like atmosphere” surrounding the March 2014 election. They also cited the “hyper-aggressive” advice from Ciampoli and Beckerman, without which, they argued, “Mr. Lamm would not have committed the offense.” (No one from the Beckerman team—or Ciampoli or Lightstone or Fragin—was ever charged for their role in the conspiracy. Zakheim told Jewish Currents he “wasn’t involved.” Lamm demurred when asked if Zakheim’s response was true but wrote, “Success has many fathers. Failure is an orphan.”)
On his own behalf, Lamm told the Court, “I’m overwhelmed by a sense of existential pain and sorrow as a result of my decisions in 2014 from which I don’t know if I can ever escape. It feels permanent, it feels indelible, and I am genuinely sorry and sorrowful.”
Herrmann and Weinstein attended the sentencing. When it was her turn to speak, Weinstein, the resident who had called Hasidim “cockroaches” on Facebook, said, “We have an entire community that has been devastated emotionally and physically. Some . . . have lost . . . their ability to feel safe.” Herrmann, for his part, responded directly to Lamm’s defense: “His childish they-made-me-do-it litany is unworthy of consideration.”
The judge wasn’t swayed by Lamm’s plea either. “What Mr. Lamm wanted to do was take over the village through a rigged election and make it in his own image . . . his neighbors be damned,” said Judge Vincent Briccetti from the bench. “Let’s think for a second. Why would you do that? Oh, I know. It’s to make millions of dollars. That’s what this case is.”
Lamm got ten months, Nakdimen six, and Smilowitz three. (Smilowitz has since sought to appeal his conviction.) Nakdimen was sent to Otisville Correctional Facility in Orange County, a prison with a kosher vending machine, known for accommodating white-collar criminals. Lamm requested Otisville but was sent to a federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
To many, Lamm’s sentence seemed absurdly lenient. Roche called it a “slap on the wrist,” not nearly enough to make up for the pain he caused in Bloomingburg. “We are tarnished on every level,” she said. “From the worth of our homes to the idea that this is a hate-filled community.”
“As a relative matter it’s preposterous,” said Perry Grossman, senior staff attorney in the Voting Rights Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “There’s no question this was an incredibly serious crime deserving of a serious sentence.” Other cases of voter fraud—even those committed by mistake—have resulted in much harsher sentences. During the 2016 presidential election, Crystal Mason, a Black woman in Texas, unknowingly cast a ballot while she was ineligible; she was sentenced to five years in prison.
IN A COUNTRY with a long history of racist voter suppression, at a moment when the president circulates voter fraud conspiracy theories as a pretext to limit ballot access, it’s a good thing that voter fraud laws aren’t as draconian in most states as they are in Texas. But it is still striking that documented cases of voter fraud—along with other instances of white-collar crime—in New York Hasidic communities have been largely ignored by authorities. “Politicians always like when they can deal with one or two people and get a whole bunch of votes,” said Heilman, the author of Who Will Lead Us?. “Nothing compares to the Hasidic community. It’s surefire. The Rebbe says ‘vote for X’ and that’s it.” Hasidic bloc votes are often sufficient to swing local electoral contests. In exchange for their loyalty, New York politicians grant the community relative autonomy from secular authorities, privileged access to welfare and housing subsidies, and freedom to educate their children in private yeshivas that often do not comply with state educational standards. In May, The New York Post reported that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had delayed an investigation into yeshivas that did not meet standards in order “to curry favor with the Orthodox Jewish voting bloc.”
At times, Haredim have gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve communal privileges, skirting the law when necessary. In 1996, the New York City Board of Elections launched an investigation after The Times Herald-Record discovered that between 1989 and 1994, there were 121 cases of former students of a Kiryas Joel yeshiva double voting in Brooklyn and Orange County. In 2013, Gothamist reported on a voting precinct in South Williamsburg where young men, many of them underaged, were arriving to vote under false names. (No prosecutions resulted.) And in May of this year, a federal judge agreed with the Spring Valley NAACP that the East Ramapo school board had systematically violated the voting rights of Black and Latino residents in school board elections.
Jewish Currents spoke to several experts in election law, all of whom agreed that New York authorities are reluctant to prosecute Hasidim for voter misconduct. “The state is invariably cautious when it comes to this,” one expert said. “Nobody at the state level wants to touch this stuff ever, ever, ever.” None of these sources, however, were willing to be associated with this sentiment by name, citing the fear of being professionally sanctioned for antisemitism, a situation that underscores the barriers to holding Hasidic community actors accountable for misconduct.
Prusinski fell victim to exactly this dynamic. Just before the 2015 election in Bloomingburg, a group of 27 local Hasidim—including the elder Smilowitz—sued her, Gaebel, and the county for voter discrimination. A few months into the suit, the plaintiffs produced several emails which, they argued, betrayed Prusinski’s bias. In one, Prusinski had described her and Gaebel’s work in Bloomingburg as “battling the Hasidic community and all manner of voter fraud.” This email and several others like it, which conflated the community as a whole with the participants in a particular criminal conspiracy, led to her downfall. The county advised her to retain her own counsel (by this point Gaebel had died), required Bloomingburg to offer Yiddish ballots, and settled the suit for $575,000. Prusinski was forced to resign ahead of her retirement and sign a gag order. “I’m not to utter the words ‘voter fraud’ in connection with the Hasidic community,” she said. She blamed the state Board of Elections for ignoring her pleas. “They allowed it to happen. They’re in denial that this happened in Sullivan County.”
TWO HUNDRED HAREDI FAMILIES, not all of them Satmar, have now settled in Bloomingburg—in Chestnut Ridge; in single-family houses along Main Street; and in Hickory Court, a former senior home. Almost all the amenities of Haredi life are available within a stroll from home. A kosher grocery store on Main Street is stocked as well as any in Borough Park. Mothers push strollers and chat along the sidewalks. Shuttles transport older boys to the yeshiva in Kiryas Joel and women to Brooklyn for social gatherings; the bus schedules are posted outside the grocery store. In town, the elementary cheder is housed in a building once owned by Lamm. Tim Mains, the superintendent for the local school district, didn’t even know the school had opened until residents alerted him. “I don’t think anyone is happy about the shady way it came about,” he said. “But the fact that there’s a Hasidic community in Bloomingburg is simply a fact.”
As the village has changed, longtime residents have come to feel that they’re now the ones being excluded. “Nobody wants me in my house,” said Roemer. “The people next door? The kids are nice to me, the father won’t look at me.” When Johnson, the former trustee, walks down Main Street now, no one wants to talk to him. “I feel like I’m on vacation,” he said, like a visitor in his own home. Teek Persaud, the owner of the Quickway and RCC treasurer, said he plans to move out of state eventually. “Driving to work, you’re not passing a cow farm anymore. You’re dodging people walking in the streets. The development is poorly maintained, garbage and toys everywhere. That community doesn’t take pride in their homes like everyone else.” Roe, who counts several Satmars among his friends, said longtime villagers who complain that Bloomingburg has changed for the worse “should look at themselves in the mirror.” Maybe, he suggested, they’re the bad neighbors. “Teek forgets that when he came to town, there were a lot of people who had a hard time with an Indian buying the diner!” Roe said. (Persaud is an immigrant from Guyana; he moved to Bloomingburg in 1987.) “Nobody liked you back then, but you’re gonna sit here and run your mouth.”
Maybe the villagers would have resented the Satmar community whether or not Lamm had smuggled them in. It’s hard to say now because Lamm’s great deception continues to color the old residents’ perceptions of their new neighbors. “We don’t hate our neighbors,” resident Cathy Dawkins wrote in a letter to the court for Lamm’s sentencing. “We do fear them. We don’t know who might be colluding with the criminals and who are victims, like us.” As another resident, Danny Wise, put it, “every day [we] must drive past a development that was built on lies, deceit and fraud.”
In November 2018, Lamm finished serving his sentence. He has mostly disappeared from goings-on in Bloomingburg, but his physical presence there no longer matters. His vision has been realized. The Hasidim now call Bloomingburg Kiryas Yetev Lev, named for the grandfather of the first Satmar rebbe. At a recent village planning meeting, Chestnut Ridge was represented by Yehuda Weissmandl, the former president of the East Ramapo school board. Thanks in part to Lamm, Bloomingburg’s Hasidic families have found what they were looking for: space. Children ride their scooters along the streets and play tag. Young couples can get away from each other and find peace and occasional solitude. “In Borough Park, I had a one-bedroom apartment,” a young kollel student told Ami. “Here I have a five-bedroom apartment.”
In 2017, Ami featured Bloomingburg in its “Exodus” series. Chaim Lebowitz, then chairman of the village planning board, acknowledged that even Bloomingburg couldn’t grow large enough to solve the Haredi housing crisis on its own. But, he said, “It is a model for what a solution should be.” In Tampa, a similar prefab Hasidic development is under construction; 500 families have already signed up to move.
Though the Hasidim in Bloomingburg may seem like suspicious outsiders to their neighbors, their story is profoundly American: a religiously ordained quest for expanded territory, in which the ends justify the means.
“This ended up being the promised land,” said Roche.
Britta Lokting is a journalist in New York. Her features have appeared in The New York Times, Oxford American, MIT Technology Review, and elsewhere.
Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York. He co-hosts the Dissent podcast Know Your Enemy.